Worn shoes, cattle and a spring

  • Backpackers

    Drawing by Malcolm Wells
  • Mother and two kids in the grocery aisle

    Malcolm Wells
  • David Tippets


ENNIS, Mont. - It was late one afternoon some years back, when I drove from the Forest Service's ranger station to the little grocery store at the end of Main Street. Among those milling about the aisles making last-minute purchases, I recognized the young wife and two school-aged children of the rancher with whom I'd just spent the day.

The little girl clung to a cart next to her mother; the boy, two years older than the girl, hopped around as though restrained by an invisible leash that kept him from running free and wild.

He and his sister were well-behaved. They didn't argue when their mom picked a generic-brand, bulk-sized plastic bag of breakfast cereal - even though it was unsweetened, only one color, and never advertised between Saturday morning cartoons on television.

Then I noticed the holes in the boy's shoes. He wore Nike basketball shoes, as did almost every other school-aged boy in the valley - even the boys with real cowboy dads wore Nike basketball shoes with their Wrangler jeans, T-shirts and ball caps. But with school having started just a month before, the others had new shoes to wear to school. Current fashion dictated that school boys have the high-topped white leather ones that cost a lot of money, and that their mothers always bought about two sizes too large so that they wouldn't grow out of them before the shoes wore out.

The holes bothered me. I looked back at the rancher's son's feet. His shoes weren't too big, I could tell by the white-sock-covered big toe sticking out one of the holes. His mom must have bought those shoes really big because it was clear they were on their second year at grade school. I knew this mom, and I knew she would never put her kids on the bus to begin a new year at school with holes in their shoes unless she had no choice.

My mind flashed back to earlier in the day, when I'd ridden with their dad to see how much forage their cattle had eaten from high-mountain summer range on the Beaverhead National Forest. I remembered how big their calves looked.

After they sell the calves, I thought, their kids will get new shoes.

The calves had grown fat over a summer with good rain making good feed up on the forest. The family's grazing permit provided them with good range, with several dependable springs. Geology was their biggest problem, I thought. The water comes out of the ground and never flows far before it percolates back into underground streams and rivers. As a result, the rancher had to build and maintain an array of collecting pipes and troughs so his cattle would have water.

The family had already experienced cuts in the number of cattle they were permitted on the forest - cut back more times than the current file documented. I took their word for the earlier times, recorded in files already shipped to the government's archives.

The father was the fifth generation to run livestock on this range. Their patriarch rode into Virginia City, Mont., during the gold rush. First he raised horses, but then that first pioneer ancestor spent time in the Montana penitentiary for rounding up too many horses that wore other people's brands.

It must have wiped his slate clean in local society because he returned to the same place and land he'd rustled horses from. The horse market stayed strong through World War I, but then crashed, and the family switched to raising cattle at about the same time the U.S. Forest Service started trying to get a handle on livestock numbers.

As I searched the canned goods on the shelf, I kept glancing sideways at the boy's protruding big toe. The holes in that kid's shoes, and that forest range made a connection in my brain. At no time in my life had the human dimension of an ecosystem seem more clearly illuminated.

It wasn't just the kids' feet, it was how high those kids held their heads when they walked through the front door of that school in the morning that suddenly seemed relevant to how well I did my job.

Two days later, I saddled up my horse and rode back onto that range to check the progress that the same rancher was making at building a new drift fence to control his cattle. It was one of those balmy fall days, cold at night but warm in midday. The elk were just starting to bugle. Grasshoppers flew noisily in front of my horses' hooves as they crunched the drying grass, and we flushed blue grouse gathered to eat the grasshoppers on the sunny slope below the top of the ridge.

Noon found me at a good spring where a redwood tank provided water to the cattle. The overflow pipe was clogged, and water spilling over the sides of the trough had turned the surrounding ground into a quagmire.

My thirsty horse willingly plunged his hooves through the sucking mud to drink from the trough. I swung down from the saddle and stepped onto a basketball-sized rock that kept me out of the mud, leaned over and cleared the algae and debris out of the overflow pipe. At least for a few days, the ground around the trough would have a chance to dry out.

I tied the gelding to a stout aspen tree, and took my lunch from the saddlebag. I planted myself a few feet away with my back to a tree; from there I could look down the canyon and watch the birds and butterflies fluttering around the mud-encircled water trough.

An elk bugled in the timber below me, and I hoped that the bull would work its way out of the trees to get a drink of water.

Instead, an athletic young man, a fit-appearing young woman, and a golden retriever walked out into the sunlight. The young man carried a grunt tube for calling elk, and I knew I'd been fooled. Just the same, I remained sitting quietly to see how long it would take for them to spot me.

They were almost to the spring before the golden retriever stopped suddenly and barked. The people looked up, startled.

"Hi, beautiful day, isn't it?" I called to them.

"You must work for the Forest Service," the man said.

"Yup, sure do," I said. I was wearing a green uniform and a Forest Service badge.

"It would be a lot nicer day," the young woman said, "if the cows hadn't ruined this spring."

"Nothing wrong with the spring," I said a little defensively. "You can climb over that pole fence and lift the lid off the spring box if you want a drink. The water's not tested, but I've never known anyone to get sick drinking it."

"This place stinks," she said. "I don't know how you can stand to eat your lunch here with all the cow manure and flies buzzing around."

"You a bow hunter?" I asked the young man, knowing that archery season opened in less than a week.

"Yes," he said, "I saw this spring marked on a map and hoped we'd find an elk wallow here. We didn't know that the cows would have the place ruined."

"I can't believe how the Forest Service manages the land for the rich ranchers," the woman said. "The wild animals and ordinary people like us have just as much right here as the cows. It would be better for most people and the wildlife if the cows were all kicked off the forest."

"There's a fair number of elk who still like living here," I said, trying to avoid an argument that I knew nobody could win. "If you cross the fence up on the ridge and head to the west, you'll be in an area where there aren't any cows this summer."

"I'm glad there's someplace without cows," he said over his shoulder as they walked away.

Years after I watched the boy with the holes in his shoes, Susan Giannettino, the leader of the Interior Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project, and a more articulate Forest Service resource manager than myself, helped me understand what had happened to me over those few days. Susan explained that it is impossible to divide the human dimension of an ecosystem from the rest of an ecosystem because the only place that either one exists is together inside the heart and mind of a human being.

They are both just "constructs" - assemblages of pieces of a puzzle which have started to form a picture that some of us can view and study together. Those of us who share a common culture, with common values, beliefs and fears, can look at the expanding puzzle, and see similar images and understand our individual ecosystem constructs in a similar way.

But someone from another culture might see it entirely differently, Susan cautioned me, and it wouldn't be wrong. Nor would it be right.

There is no right and wrong in how people interpret such inventions of the mind, because it is only through our values, uses and language that we can create a construct of the human dimensions of an ecosystem in the first place.

"All managerial decisions are moral, not technical," former Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas testified to Congress in 1994, "because they accommodate some people's values, but not others."

"You cannot manage natural resources in conflict," Allan Savory, founder of the Center for Holistic Resource Management, told Forest Service rangeland managers during a Change on the Range Conference held in Albuquerque almost a decade ago. "You cannot proceed past your weakest link," he continued, explaining that until humans can agree on the important goals, natural resource managers can't properly manage the resources.

Instead of dedicating years of work and spending millions of dollars to determine one biologically correct answer, perhaps managers should ask, "What can we agree on? What can we begin work on now that will benefit everyone?"

Over several years I repeatedly rode up, down and across that national forest cattle range with the rancher whose son started school with holes in his shoes. Those holes were often on my mind.

Was it my responsibility to see that the range produced enough pounds of red meat that his kids could start school in new shoes? Or, was it my responsibility to keep the sagebrush on that hillside for hiding cover when the cow elk dropped their babies there? Or was it my job to save the blue-bunch wheatgrass for elk calves to eat during their first hard winter? Or, perhaps I needed to be more concerned about the hikers who wanted to have lunch at a spring where no cattle watered - a spring without the cow pies and flies.

Maybe what I needed was the humility to understand that I still didn't understand. That that rancher and I shared too similar a perspective to be sure just the two of us alone could fix the problems.

What is the value of a high mountain spring - one with no water trough, no mud, no cow pies?

The rancher and I know there were values harvested when we watched the black bear scurry to cover in the springtime, and heard the bull elk bugle while he gathered cattle in the fall.

What we don't know is how to quantify and compare the value of those intangibles with the value of those basketball shoes his son wears to school.

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